Top Songs of 2016, by Joseph Schafer
The rise of streaming services like Apple Music, Spotify and especially YouTube means that more people listen to music song-by song than they have since the halcyon days of radio. In the grand scheme of things, that’s a short span of time, roughly from the dawn of iTunes (or, let’s be honest, torrent sites) to two years ago, but still the metal industry lives in the digital album format era.
I’m not complaining. I listen to albums more than songs, even though in honesty most albums don’t contain enough great songs to justify their length.
But let’s not throw out the wheat with the chaff. Like every other year, 2016 offered a surplus of excellent songs that made their way into heavy rotation despite my preference for twenty to forty minute chunks of music (and in one instance because of that preference).
To honor that, here are my top songs of 2016. In composing this list, I ignored cuts which will be featured on my top albums list next week, though expect a few songs to get special mention there.
10) Agoraphobic Nosebleed – “Not a Daughter”
I’ve seen Massachusetts industrial-grind legends Agoraphobic Nosebleed twice now, once with minimal participation from original vocalist Jay Randall and once without him entirely, and I don’t miss him. In 2016, this band was all about former Salome singer Kat Katz, who took sole vocal duty on the band’s Arc EP. Over the course of three songs, the band pivoted into bluesy sludge so well that they eclipsed similar releases by veterans of the style (see Crowbar). Katz drew on the experience of caring for her dying mother on the EP, and the deep, surreal sorrow of that experience shines through best on “Not A Daughter”. The riff’ satisfies at once but doesn’t overpower anything else. The drums never draw attention to their own synthetic nature. Kats absorbs all focus into lyrics that put the listener right into her unenviable shoes. “Stop / Stop hurting me / Why are you doing this to me? / I am nobody / Not a daughter”.
9) Deathspell Omega – “Onward where Most with Ravin I may meet”
After what felt to many like a long hiatus, French technical and progressive black metal innovators Deathspell Omega released The Synarchy of Molten Bones in November. For the first time, the band didn’t take an obvious step forward. Rather, they circled back to some overt black metal tropes and incorporated them into the more spacious and cyclical style the employed on Paracletus and the Drought EP. The whole affair fires on all cylinders at all times, but opens up for a little melody in “Onward where Most with Ravin I may meet”, which sometimes gives me the same sick-to-my-stomach feeling that Blut Aus Nord’s MoRT does. Individual Deathspell Omega tracks almost never draw my attention, but this one hypnotizes where the rest of the record seems content to pummel.
8) The Dillinger Escape Plan – “Limerent Death”
The Dillinger Escape Plan open their latest and final album Dissociation with a barnburner. They always had a knack for balancing hooks and viciousness, but something about “Limerent Death” feels like a cut above. Maybe it’s Greg Puciato’s most nasal and scorched clean vocals yet. He gives one of his career-best performances on this song, especially during the final section when the band steadily ratchets up their speed like a locomotive gaining a head of steam. The lyrics aren’t the most inventive turns of phrase the band ever came up with, but still cut through the bullshit: “I gave you everything you wanted, you were everything to me.” Puciato says he doesn’t write about other people anymore, so we’re free to find other uses for that kind of nasty not-so-passive-aggression. Personally, I listen to this song when I think about the mainstream branch of the Democratic party.
7) Mantar – “Era Borealis”
One of 2016’s great joys has been watching Mantar come into their own. I knew the German guitar-and-drum duo were onto something special when I saw them at Maryland Deathfest, but when I revisited their first album, Death by Burning, I didn’t think the songs lived up to the performance. That’s all over and done with. Their new, sleek-and-swaggering sophomore album, Ode to the Flame, blends the best of mainstream and underground worlds. Botch-ish guitar tones serve chunky Rage Against the Machine riffs, Melvins-ish drum fills flesh out beats that Lars Ulrich could have used on The Black Album and walls of feedback kind of sound like… organ accompaniment? That kind of conscious melding of old classics and new aggression makes “Era Borealis” such a great anthem. “This is death uber alles”, goes the second part of the chorus, evoking not only the German national anthem but a little of the spirit of Dead Kennedys. If Mantar write a whole album of songs this good, maybe they’ll make it on the Grammy shortlist next time around. After all, Gojira and Baroness did it, and Mantar is operating on their level.
6) Asphalt Graves – “No Feast (Without Cruelty)”
Author and musician Jason Netherton elevates every band he’s in. He made Dying Fetus into a powerhouse, then left and did the same for Misery Index. In 2016 he organized a supergroup, Asphalt Graves, to recapture some of the vintage death-thrash flavor that both aforementioned bands have moved away from. The virulent punk stomp of classic deathgrind meets Netherton’s intellectual condescension in glorious fashion on songs like “No Feast (Without Cruelty).” In a new world where climate change and geopolitics become even bigger worries, it’s important to remember issues that affect the day-to-day lives of working people, and in the tradition of bands like Nasum and Napalm Death, Netherton penned an anthem against the United States’ affordable housing crisis with this tune.
5) Ihsahn – “Mass Darkness”
On albums like Das Seelenbrechen and Emerita, former Emperor frontman Ihsahn explored his proclivities for progressive rock and pop and reduced the metal aspects of his sound to aesthetics. If Emperor was a pumpkin spice donut, then Ihsahn’s last two solo records only had a pumpkin glaze on them. Many of his new fans may not remember that his first solo album, The Adversary pretty much amounted to Mercyful Fate worship. Ihsahn explored that sound again on “Mass Darkness”, with Trivium’s Matt Heafy playing the role of King Diamond. More like “Mass Dorkness”, right? It should not work, but Ihsahn knows the value of an irresistible chorus, and on this tune crafted one of his best. To enjoy, leave pretensions and preconceived notions outside. You just have to give in.
4) Nuke – “Nuke Me Baby”
Mike Erdody of Acid Witch deserves more recognition as a writer of riffs that encapsulate the spirit of metal’s halcyon days while tossing a little grit in the mix. He embodies the best parts of the Hell’s Headbangers taste profile. Of course Nuke, his band with Richard “Daemonbitch” Benson of Shitfucker sounds like a lost 80’s street metal classic. Named after the narcotic plot device from ‘Robocop 2,’ the band is a filthy love letter to Detroit, Michigan, and opens their self-titled album with a sample from that movie before rocketing into the similarly addictive “Nuke Me Baby”. Erdody’s high string flourishes spark and hiss through brittle distortion, and the contrast between Benson’s Tom Waits-ish grunts and his upper register shrieks align on a stellar hook. Painkiller-era Judas Priest is an obvious comparison, and much like the song “Painkiller”, “Nuke Me Baby” maxes its mileage with a handful of teased false endings.
3) Metallica – “Spit Out the Bone”
Both a return to form and a mixed bag, Metallica’s Hardwired… To Self Destruct topped several best-of lists already this year. I can’t offer it the same accolades, even though I enjoy it. Like Death Magnetic before it, the double album opens with a bang (“Atlas, Rise!” and “Halo on Fire” nearly made this list) and then cools considerably by the end, in fact clunkers like “Am I Savage?” and “Murder One” make me look back on 2008’s hyper-compressed progfest more charitably (don’t compare those songs to Load, either. “Outlaw Torn” stomps on them). Yes, it’s more overly metal than anything since …And Justice For All, but The Black Album has more great tunes, Load beats it in production and lyrics, and Death Magnetic had better solos.
What Hardwired… To Self Destruct does have that its predecessors do not, though, is a barnburning closer for the ages. Metallica used to know how to open up a pit, and “Spit Out the Bone” is the mosh-storm I’ve been waiting for. The song evokes previous pick-and-palm-mute finales like “Dyers Eve” and “The Struggle Within”, but clobbers them in terms of speed, composition complexity, melody and catchiness. On all fronts, it’s the strongest end to a Metallica record in thirty years, as well as the song that probably best recaptures the fire that the four horsemen wielded when Cliff Burton was still alive. Hardwired has issues, but for the first time in my adult life, Metallica’s new record makes me feel, just for seven or so minutes, like I did when I first heard them and thought “I want to listen to metal for the rest of my life”.
2) Ghost – “Square Hammer”
When Ghost released Opus Eponymous in 2010, the band had a fully-formed and obvious identity: King Diamond fronting Blue Oyster Cult… with spooky outfits. In the two albums since, that identity dissolved while the costumes remained. The band even hinted at this conscious shifting of identity by pretending to change singers It was liberating, and allowed them to experiment in unexpected avenues on the two albums that followed, but even on Meliora, which made my top album list of last year, it seemed like Ghost was still finding themselves, juggling their balance of pop, metal and classic rock.
On “Square Hammer”, though, every element is in its right place. Ian Cory thinks it’s their best song ever, and while I’d give that honor to “Year Zero”, I see why he thinks so. The guitars and drums are bonehead simple, but embody some of the classic metal roots that people still ache for – that riff sounds like something Ace Frehley might have written, and the drums remind me of Paul Rudd’s robot rock (the snare-and-vocal hits in the verse call back to “Thunderstruck”, which actually was performed by Chris Slade). The song’s so good, in fact, that it might have taken Meliora to the top of my list, but I understand why they left it off. “Square Hammer” would have sucked up all the attention the remainder of that record deserved – it absorbed more of my attention than most albums did.
1) Gorguts – “Pleiades’ Dust”
Maybe I’m cheating including one thirty minute song in the pole position, but it was Luc Lemay’s decision to blur the lines between single, EP and LP on Pleiades’ Dust. After toiling in relative obscurity during death metal’s mid-90’s prime, Gorguts went into hiding only to have their obtuse and technical take on death metal grow hugely influential. When the band revived on 2013’s Colored Sands, critics threw critical acclaim at their feet like roses to a bullfighter, but some of that praise seemed, to me, like consolation for the hard journey and not the work itself. Colored Sands is a great record, but in retrospect it feels like a warm-up. To me, Pleiades’ Dust is the main event, a dynamic and engaging piece of music that bridges the neoclassical-to-death-metal gap that Lemay started toeing on Obscura. Listening to 30 minutes of dissonant guitar and drums can be a chore, but paying attention for the whole song isn’t ever difficult. Sweeping lyrics centered on the history of The House of Wisdom, an ancient library in Baghdad that was destroyed by a Mongol army, both suit the music and offer a poignant parallel to current events for those willing to read between the lines. This song, album, EP, whatever it is feels like a culmination not just of what Gorguts has been up to, but of the entire line of thought that began when someone first listened to Venom and thought “This is cool. Now if only it was smarter…”
Cover of the Year:
Pallbearer – “Love You To Death”
I don’t like Pallbearer. None of their songs or records mean an iota to me. When people describe what they feel when listening to them, it’s as if I’m hearing a completely different band. This year’s cover of Type O Negative’s “Love You To Death”, though, breathes new life into the song. Whipped into shape by Peter Steele’s iron-clad pop song structure, Pallbearer flex all of their elegiac melodic sensibility and actually make me a little excited to hear their upcoming third record.
Best Not-metal song:
DJ Shadow Featuring Run the Jewels – “Nobody Speak”
“Picture this, I’m a bag of dicks, put me to your lips.” So begins El-P’s opening verse on this single from DJ Shadow’s newest record. It’s the most vital a Shadow cut’s sounded in a decade, but that’s more to do with the guest artists. Run the Jewels, the duo of El-P and Killer Mike are, to my thinking, the only hip hop outfit that matters right now, blending intelligent wordplay, vocal ferocity and a socially conscious message. I like them more than almost every metal band from the last three years. Their last album, RTJ2, was a masterpiece but if it had any weakness it was that Killer Mike’s verses were so on-point and so socially charged that it diminished El-P’s vocal contributions. With Shadow on the boards, El-P stepped up his rhymes to match Mike’s. Smart and swaggering, they’re the peak of music for mass consumption right now. I can’t wait for RTJ3.